Outrage over the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards’ nominees has recently become vocal, though by no means for the first time. Prominent members of the entertainment industry have called for a boycott of the upcoming ceremony after the Academy failed to nominate any actors of colour. From Jada Pinkett Smith to Snoop Dogg to Danny Devito and Spike Lee, celebrities have rallied together to express their frustration at the current situation.
That the film industry continues to be whitewashed in 2016 should be surprising, yet it has become a familiar reality. Steve McQueen recently made the comparison of the Academy Awards to MTV in the 1980s, during which artists of colour only appeared after 11pm and even then rarely so.
Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg made the compelling point that a diversity of nominations cannot exist without a diversity of film casts in the first place. Still, this problem extends much further than visibility. A lack of diversity in the Academy’s choice certainly reflects a poignant lack of opportunities in the entertainment industry, but simply calling for a diversification of the awards themselves is problematic.
The very concept of awards originated in colonialist Britain. Back then, it worked through the declaration of knighthoods which elevated recipients to the elite corps of the colonial system, where they came to be called ‘Sir.’ Between the pronouncement of knighthoods and MBEs there is a narrative of colonial legacy which continues to penetrate our society. In 2003 Benjamin Zephaniah rejected his OBE on the basis that the title, Order of British Empire, highlighted white supremacy. In a Guardian article published the same year he wrote, “I get angry when I hear that word ‘empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
Only months after David Cameron informed Jamaica to “move on from the painful legacy of slavery”, award systems are clear evidence of why we cannot. The legacy of colonialism is still rife in society; the markers of Western ‘greatness’ stem out of that very same oppressive heritage. Certainly, the legacy of slavery is a painful one, and that is exactly why it shouldn’t be forgotten. Instead, the extent to which colonialism continues to navigate modern society must be made visible.
An urge to boycott the Oscars goes much deeper than the representation of people of colour within the awards themselves. By asking to be included in the Academy Awards we are ignoring the colonial legacy that the entire awards system is based upon. Demanding greater diversity in film should be self explanatory, in particular when opportunities are considered but, if the greatest battle here is to diversify the Academy Awards, we are continuing to mark an award system based upon colonialism as legitimate.
Just because the words ‘British Empire’ do not feature in the awards’ title, it does not separate the awards from their colonialist legacy, it simply makes it less visible. Out of all the controversy surrounding the Academy Awards, I think Snoop Dogg said it best: “F**k the Grammys. F**k the Oscars. F**k all that old slavery bullshit ass awards show.” It’s about time a new legacy was built out of something other than the oppression of different minorities.